Cartagena Cosmovisions I: Every atom belonging to me

Not for the first time at a Hay Festival, a word comes up in a talk that has not previously been part of my vocabulary. Only later, studying the programme more carefully, do I realise it was the title of the talk: Cosmovisiones indigenas – Indigenous cosmovisions.

Cherie Dimaline, the wonderful Metis writer from Canada whom I had met in Arequipa, and Weidler Guerra, a Colombian academic and activist on behalf of indigenous communities, bring the north and south of the Americas together, sharing ideas about various indigenous peoples’ conceptions of what I have always called ‘worldview’. This being Hay Festival, over lunch I am able to confirm its close relationship with the concept of Weltanschauung with my new friend Wolfram Eilenberger, a philosopher from Germany.

But I think ‘cosmovision’ is a better word for it, especially in indigenous conceptions that privilege ideas connected to the stars and the universe. Using the word cosmos implies a view of the universe as an orderly system or entity, the opposite of chaos.

The word comes up again in a conversation with Gaby Del Mar, a young Colombian activist and researcher from the Chaskis del Caribe collective. As the other writers we are with – including Cherie – luxuriate in our hotel’s rooftop pool with strawberry daiquiris, Gaby and I discuss the state of the world. She tells me about President Ivan Duque, whom some Colombians have dubbed ‘Peppo Pig’, and I tell her about David Cameron, the man who uncorked the bitter bottle of Brexit. Watching turkey vultures circle ominously the tall white skyscrapers in the middle distance, we attempt somehow to put the universe back into order. Behind us the Caribbean Sea washes in against Cartagena’s sixteenth century fortifications, carrying its contradictory connotations of earthly paradise and exploitation; pirates, conquistadors and slaves.

Gaby’s work with indigenous peoples have her questioning the very concept of history, at least the version she learned in school. She resists subscribing to conspiracy theories, but in Colombia more than most places it must be clear to see that history is the narrative controlled by the people who have taken the earth and everything in it for themselves. The language we use to describe these elites may have changed, but just like the poor, the 1% has always been with us.

I ask Gaby how Colombians feel living in a country named after an Italian bankrolled by the Spanish Crown. It’s telling that instead of talking about Colombus, she tells me about India Catalina. Like La Malinche in Mexico, India Catalina is an ambiguous figure – translator and go-between vanquished peoples and their conquerors – and Gaby is keen to tell me that the indigenous peoples of Colombia still believe a story different to that of official Spanish history. At a traffic junction on the other side of the old walled city, India Catalina stands proud, and of course, being a woman depicted in a statue erected by men, she is nearly naked.

Gaby talks passionately about indigenous peoples’ relationship with both the heavens and the earth. Visiting an elder for an astrological reading of her own personal future, she dared to ask about the future of the world. He’d assured her that despite the mess human beings are making of the planet, both in terms of the way we treat Mother Earth and the way we treat each other, the universe is very much under control. I realised, once again, that we were talking about cosmovisions.

The story of India Catalina puts me in mind of a statue making headlines back home. I tell Gaby about Hidden Heroines, a recent campaign run by the BBC, the significant result of which will be the first appearance in statue of a real woman from Wales – and a black woman at that. Betty Campbell was Wales’ first black headteacher, in Butetown, the multicultural docklands district better known around the world as Tiger Bay.

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This is not a conversation in the Hay Festival programme, but nevertheless it captures something of what happens when you gather writers from around the world to exchange ideas. From the pool we can hear the conversation has switched from daiquiris to the persecution of Sephardic Jews. The cocktail later will be held at the Palacio de la Inquisicion. Cartagena seems to hold such contradictions effortlessly. Las Bovedas, a series of huge arches beneath the city walls, once held slaves imprisoned for insubordination or rebellion. It was here also that slaves were sorted, the smaller and weaker kept in Colombia, the larger and stronger sold on northwards into the Caribbean islands and into the United States via New Orleans. Now the bovedas house a row of souvenir shops, brightly coloured jewellery, bags, ceramics, hats and football shirts.

Gaby tells me about shamanism, and in turn I introduce her to the story of the Wales Window of Alabama, another link between Tiger Bay and the Americas. On 16 September 1963, the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. Four black girls – Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, all 14, and 11-year-old Denise McNair, perhaps descendants of slaves who had passed through Cartagena – were killed. The Western Mail, the national newspaper of Wales, ran a campaign to raise money to replace the window, with a maximum donation of half a crown – thirty old pennies – ensuring this was a gift from all of the people of Wales.

The Wales Window of Alabama, created by John Petts, depicts a Black Jesus, arms outstretched in love and death, forgiveness and protection. I recalled the words from the Gospel of Matthew that appear as part of the window’s design: ‘Whatever you do to the least of my brothers...’ Gaby finished my sentence. ‘You do it unto me.’

Something moves in the universe, and our cosmovisions collide. We understood, without verbalising anything, that by killing the four girls the racists had punctured four gigantic holes in the natural order of the universe, hammered the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet. They had killed God.

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The following day I interview Sarah Churchwell, a particular honour because alongside Bonnie Greer she was my favourite panellist on the now much-missed Newsnight Review. Sarah’s latest book Behold, America is a history of two phrases, ‘the American Dream’ and ‘America First’. She is not afraid to call out Donald Trump’s brand of white nationalism as fascist, siting the current President of the United States in an ideological genealogy that includes the extra-judicial killings of young black people on America’s streets today, lynchings advertised as family entertainment in the 1930s, all the way back to slavery. ‘I am not prepared to wait,’ she says, ‘for the fascists to start a genocide before we stand up.’

Sarah talked about the different versions of the American Dream that have come to exist, not only in the minds of Americans but people throughout the world. As Latin Americans know more than most, what goes on in the White House affects every human on the planet. I had started the discussion with Sarah by quoting from a ludicrous story in the previous day’s New York Times in which Donald Trump’s incredible orange tan, even in the midst of a cold Washington winter, was down to ‘good genes’. As Sarah goes on to explain, this is no mere simple vanity; Trump’s family have a history of subscribing to eugenicist theory, that humans can have ‘good breeding’ in the manner of a racehorse.

Immediately following the talk I return to the hotel – Casa La Fe – and await a minivan to the airport. In the lobby, I force a few unsold copies of Driving Home Both Ways into what little space remains in my suitcase, rue the fact that there can be no appropriate way to dress for a journey that will drop the temperature by thirty degrees Celsius, and check my social media. My wife has uploaded pictures of our daughters. I comment using the emoji with hearts for eyes.

Later, waking on the plane – Elapsed Time 06:36, Remaining Time 2:29, Local Time at Origin 05:40, Local Time at Destination 10:41 – I find myself thinking about my daughters’ genes, and words from a poem I wrote interrogating the questions a doctor asked when the eldest one was born:


A single swab

of saliva reveals all,

a tea-leaf telling in reverse:

black bodies patterned like pilchards.


The test recognises the ghosts

of my ancestors

in Mali and Ghana and Congo

and Cameroon


taken and stripped

of names


but the double helix

of nucleotides

inside me is as sure

as the rings of a tree


I am West African.


Martin Luther King, a Baptist Minster widely associated with Birmingham, Alabama, talked about the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners sitting together at the table of brotherhood. And Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass was a beautiful blueprint for an American dream not only of brother and sisterhood, but also of freedom and equality, wrote that ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.

Contained within that simple phrase is a cosmovision that spans the great American continent and spreads across the Atlantic Ocean and around the world. It reaches out, from Cartagena to Cardiff and New Orleans to Newport, from Christopher Columbus to India Catalina to Betty Campbell. It expresses the truth that we are, all of us – black, white, Hispanic, immigrant and indigenous – made of the same stardust that comprises the universe.

And Cartagena, with its complex history, its diverse people, its contradictions and juxtapositions, captures the same idea. It is, like Hay-on-Wye and everywhere else on our precious planet, a magical place, where ordinary lives mingle freely with the extraordinary mysteries of the cosmos.

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Dylan Moore is editor of IWA's the welsh agenda and Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2018/19, travelling to each Hay Festival edition, exploring issues of displacement and exile. His debut collection, Driving Home Both Ways, is out now.